OK – Category Romance novels have very specific word counts – so what do you do it you find you’re w-a-y over the word limit and your hero and heroine still haven’t got to the point of saying ‘I love you!’? Kate Walker offers advice on just where and how you should tackle the process of Cutting For Pace – and how to make it less painful to ‘kill your darlings’.
CUT FOR PACE
Category romances have very specific word limits. Many other types of fiction too specify or suggest a word limit and even if they don’t, it’s often a good idea to watch your word count carefully. Too long a story can ramble, have a sagging middle, and end seeming far too heavy with more details than are really needed. It does all of us no harm at all to check that we are not being self-indulgent and writing far more than we need to.
Here’s a question that I’m often asked – either exactly in this way or something very like it:
QUESTION: I’ve finished my novel and done a total word count – to find that I’m way over the limit. How does one cut 28 pages from a WIP?
Some years ago, I had an editor who was affectionately known as Ms C4P and the C4P stood for Cut-for-Pace. This is because when I – or any of her other authors – sent in a manuscript for her to read, inevitably, even if she passed it without any other revisions, it would come back with lines, paragraphs, sometimes even whole pages where she had put a pencil line down the side and the instruction ‘Cut for pace’. After a while working with her, I very soon started to hear her voice in my head when I was writing, and I would soon start cutting for pace even before I’d sent the manuscript off – sometimes even as I was writing the words – I would be erasing them as fast as I wrote them.
Cutting your work to meet the strict word count of a category romance novel can be one of the hardest things for an author to do. We put a part of ourselves into these stories, we love every word we’ve written – we believe every word we’ve put into it is vital, essential to the story – and oh, so eloquently written. How could anyone ever ask us to cut it back? But an editor will. If your work is over the word count limit, you’ll be asked to bring it under the maximum. If your story has lots of extra characters, events, secondary plots that are extraneous to the central romance, you’ll be asked to reduce them. If you have proportionally a lot more narrative than dialogue, you’ll be asked to change the balance to around 60% dialogue to 40% narrative. And even if your story fits exactly into the word count limit, very often a trained, objective, editorial eye will see places where the action slows, where the dialogue goes nowhere, where you repeat something you or your characters have said before, and her pencil will come out, a line will go through the passage and in the margin will be the words:
CUT FOR PACE
So how do you cut anything from a few hundred words to several thousand from your precious manuscript on which you’ve worked so hard?
First things first – you swallow your pride. You push away all thoughts of how much you ‘just love this bit!’ and you look at your work as coldly and objectively as you can. After all, that’s what your editor is going to do. She isn’t going to think, ‘Oh but she had such fun writing this,’ or ‘This is where she put in something that her DH said to her once – a secret message between the two of them’. No way. She’s going to decide that this doesn’t really contribute to the story or that has been said already on pages 34 and 78 and really we’ve got the point by now. And she isn’t going to be impressed by long, poetic descriptions of scenery or clothing or meals or the history of a particular place. To her it’s going to look like padding and the pencil will cross it out.
The best thing you can do is to try and get there first – to do much of the cutting for her. If you’re careful and clever then you’ll create a tighter, pacier read at the same time -you might even improve on the slightly saggy middle – and that will help to give your manuscript the best possible chance.
So what do you cut?
Cut anything you’re already said
If you have a point to make between you characters, make it once as clearly as possible and then leave it to stand. You can refer back to it briefly, but don’t keep belabouring the point. In short books like romances, even just one line repeated on several occasions can seem way too much.
Obviously you have to have brief descriptions here and there – what your characters look like – what they’re wearing – what the room they’re in looks like. But don’t waste time and precious words going into elaborate details. The sad truth is that more often than not a reader will skim over any detailed descriptions so as to get on with the good stuff – the relationship between your H & h – so you’re really wasting your time if you go into poetic descriptions. Make it short and sweet.
Dialogue that doesn’t make its point
Okay, so everyday dialogue is full of Good morning/How are you/Nasty weather . . . but you don’t have space or word count for that. You don’t really have the word count for any dialogue that doesn’t reveal one character to another. The conversations your characters have should add to their knowledge of each other, reveal facts about the conflict that has come between them, explain why things happened. They – and you – don’t have time just to pass the time of day. Make your dialogue count. And don’t constantly keep getting them to the point of revealing something and then breaking off and saying, ‘No – not now.’ No one in real life would let that pass again and again and it becomes irritating repetition.
Yes, the reader wants to know what your H & h are thinking – but keep it short, sharp and to the point. One problem with introspection is that it’s always in narrative – and it’s always telling, not showing. If you spend time having your hero reflect on how the way the heroine is behaving reminds him of how his mother always used to act in front of her many boyfriends and so he . . . before you know it, you’ll have lost the reader’s attention – and they’ll have lost their place in the dialogue. Keep introspection to a couple of telling sentences. If there is more that needs to be explained, then it should go into dialogue and be told to the heroine.
This is much like point number one – yes, your reader wants to get inside the H/h’s head and understand them – but we don’t need to know every last details of their life, their thoughts, their relationship with their parents and every single girlfriend/boyfriend they ever had. Only use introspection when it actually tells the reader something about the way the person is feeling now.
Elaboration on minor points/Elaboration full stop
The reason a reader has picked up a romance is because she wants to read a ROMANCE. She doesn’t want a travelogue, a history lesson. You may be a world expert on horse racing, or martial arts – but are the details you’re putting in directly relevant to the ROMANCE? If not, they are padding, and padding will weigh down and slow down your story.
Too much detail/dialogue/description/action involving minor characters who take away the focus from the h/h and so diffuse the action. The story your reader wants is the story of the HERO and the HEROINE. They don’t want her sister’s troubles with her husband or his best friend’s long last girlfriend. Any time you spend away from the central story weakens that plot and so the focus of the book. Of course, this varies according to the different lines – a Superromance can afford to have more of a secondary plot and more characters than, say a Presents – but as a general rule, and certainly when you are trying to cut for pace, the main relationship should always be your focus and you can afford to cut back on the lesser ones.
Scenes that only show one thing and so could be combined with another to tell a couple of things in one go
In a restricted word limit, you don’t have time to detail everything and give everything its single focus in the spotlight. Use each scene to its best advantage by making sure that it shows something about your h&h and their story. Don’t just have one scene where the heroine finds a photograph of the hero’s dead wife – put that together with an argument that leads to her blurting out that she has been married too – unhappily – and the repercussions from that will lead into a sensual reconciliation . . .
Family – families often get in the way in fiction – and in fact!
Don’t however fall into the trap of feeling that you have to kill off all the heroine’s parents and relatives – that will just turn your book into melodrama. But families could interfere – a brother or father wouldn’t stand for the way the hero is treating the heroine – so set up a scenario where the heroine is working away from home – or living in another country – or Mum & Dad have gone on a round the world cruise and won’t be back till Christmas. Then you won’t have to have scenes in which things have to be explained to them.
Lovemaking scenes that don’t show any development – that aren’t different from the last one
The point about a sex scene is not just to show that your H&h fancy each other – they are there to mirror the development of the relationship and show the changes in it. If your word count is too long and you have some love scenes, however well written and erotic, that are really just a long-winded way of saying ‘they made love again’ – then why not just say that. Besides, too many repetitions of love scenes mean that even the most even passionate scenes lose their impact and become a bit too much the same. Don’t waste them. Make them count – or cut them.
Long, detailed ‘getting to know you’ that could be summarised into ‘and then he told her about…’
The H& h need to learn about each other, especially if this isn’t a reunion story – but you don’t have to have ALL the story – summarise – He told her about his childhood in Texas, the happy days before his mother died, the change that came after . . .’
Quite often if you show the beginning of the conversation – ‘Tell me about . . .’ then like a film would ‘fade’ – focusing again on the ending ;’ . . .and that’s why I came to live in New York . . ‘
Scenes that do not have the H&h together should always be looked at in case they’re not really needed.
This is another point on the focus of the plot – that central relationship. So even if a scene is the heroine discussing her relationship with the hero, if it’s with her mother/her best friend, it can probably be expendable and a shorter, more direct way of just stating how she’s feeling can be found.
Detailed telling of action that could become ‘with one bound he was free’!!!!
For example – if your hero has been captured and tied up – then finds a piece of glass and cuts through his bonds- again you only need the beginning ‘Twisting the glass awkwardly in his restricted grip, he began to saw clumsily . . . Two hours later the last strand finally parted. With a sigh of relief he rubbed his hands, wincing as he touched the places where the glass had slipped and nicked him.’
You don’t have to go into every last detail of how long it took, how he kept dropping the glass, how he cut himself . . . Leave that to the reader’s imagination.
Factual background that weighs down the action
– history of places/family histories/ clothing details/ training details
A romance isn’t the place to air your knowledge – you are telling a story never forget that.
Cutting always hurts – you’ve written it and you meant it to stay but….
The rule of thumb is – yes you may have written this wonderfully well – but is the fact that it’s well written enough justification for it staying in – what does it ADD to the book – if nothing/not much – why is it there?
RU Crew, do you have any pacing horror stories you’d like to share?
Thank you to Kate for being with us today. Join us on Wednesday when Mina Khan tells us why she decided to use exotic djinn mythology and multicultural characters in her debut book.
Bio: Kate Walker has been writing for Harlequin Presents since 1986. In that time she has written over 60 novels. Her books have been published in over thirty-five countries worldwide.
Her January release 2010 THE KONSTANTOS MARRIAGE DEMAND was recently awarded the Reviewers’ Choice Best Presents Extra 2010 by Romantic Times magazine, and her 2011 title, THE PROUD WIFE (March 2011) has just been nominated for the award this year. Her latest romance THE RETURN OF THE STRANGER was published in Harlequin Presents Extra in October. Coming up is THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES in March 2012.
Kate Walker is also the author of the 12 POINT GUIDE TO WRITING ROMANCE (Aber Publishing). A third edition is now in print which is also available on KINDLE..
Kate Walker has an MA in English from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and worked as a Children’s Librarian before concentrating on writing full-time. She runs writing days and weekend workshops on fiction and in 2012 she will be teaching a week-long residential course on writing romantic fiction at The Watermill in Posara, Tuscany. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and Romance Writers of America, has taught several times at the RNA Conference and reads and critiques for their New Writers’ Scheme. She is married with one grown up son.